All eyes may be on Philippe Gilbert in the run-up to the UCI World Championships road race, but the Belgian squad can count on a number of other strongmen to step into the breach should their leader be marked out of contention in Copenhagen. Chief among them is Nick Nuyens, a rider who quietly collected two classic wins this spring in a manner very much in keeping with his 'Sniper' moniker.
After an impressive win at Dwars Door Vlaanderen, Nuyens sprang a surprise at the Tour of Flanders by smartly outfoxing Sylvain Chavanel and Fabian Cancellara in Meerbeke, and circumstances could yet see the man from Lier play a prominent role on Sunday.
While television crews crowded around Gilbert at the Belgian team's press gathering on Friday morning, at the next table, Nuyens quietly talked Cyclingnews through his squad's approach to a wide-open Worlds.
"I think it could be a strange race just because of the fact that it's not the most difficult parcours but yet also there is also something to it," Nuyens said. "I think a big group can go suddenly and take a minute or two minutes and the race might be over. And if you're in that group, then anything can happen."
Nuyens reiterated that Gilbert's sensational string of victories in 2011 makes him the undisputed captain of the Belgian team, but he echoed his leader's own belief that the nature of the course and the tactical situation could yet mean that the likes of Nuyens and Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Van Summeren are forced to play their own hand.
"For sure with Philippe, he's our leader: that's clear from how he's raced in the past year. But there are other guys in the Belgian team who can do a nice final too and once you're there, anything can happen. I think we've seen that many times lately," he smiled, recalling his and Van Summeren's classic victories.
The Belgian line-up is thus composed of two main divisions - one to accompany Gilbert in the finale, and the other to infiltrate breakaways and make the race as difficult as possible in a bid to distance the pure sprinters.
"It's too early to talk about it, but if we go for a sprint, we have good guys suited to bring Philippe to an optimal position in the last few hundred metres, strong guys who have also some speed," he explained. "On the other hand, we have many guys - and I'm one of them - who can go in the break and make the other teams nervous so they have to chase. That makes the race harder and I think the harder the race is, the better it is for Belgium."
Ironically, Nuyens believes that the relative facility of the route could heighten the toughness of the race itself. "We'll have to wait and see how it is after 266km because when people think it's not the hardest parcours, they race hard because everybody thinks they can do something," he said.
"When it's a hard parcours, everybody waits, waits, waits, and then it's just one or two laps - boom - and the whole bunch explodes. But here, the kilometres will start to take a toll and not everybody is able to do over 250km full gas."
Nuyens dismissed the idea that his Tour of Flanders victory had given him a newfound confidence over such distances, however. "It didn't change anything because I knew I could do it," he said. "I was second in Flanders in 2008, and that was also 260km. Besides, it's a completely different race, Flanders is way harder with all the climbs."
A low-key summer followed Nuyens' clinical spring victories, but he is confident that riding and completing the Vuelta a España was the ideal preparation for Copenhagen.
"I took some time to recover, because the Vuelta was really hard. There was too much climbing, I think almost the whole bunch agrees with me," he grimaced. "I was back racing the following Wednesday at Wallonnie because it's a special race for me, and I was kind of surprised how I had recovered in two days, only going really deep was not possible.
"By Isbergues I was already little bit better again, and now we have a week with no race so it's perfect to help me recover completely. We've just had a quiet week with the team and we'll be ready."
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